18 May 2015

First Impressions: Mad Max: Fury Road

Weekends like this that feature a slug to our cultural face and gut like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is really why I love movies and still write about cinema. Despite there being no objectionable reason for it not existing, this long-term sequel finally dropped, and immediately, we realised why it shouldn't have existed for so long. It's certifiably insane, a bonkers, balls-out film at every turn with feminist undercurrents, monstrous baddies, and a largely dialogue-free stripped down story that relishes in media res like a champion. It's an arrogant affront to the Transformers and Marvel mass audience blockbuster-sort of storytelling that has held hegemony over Summer for the past decade. It flexes into the fantastic rather than the realistic at every turn, yet it feels more real than any self-serious summer brooder. It's a masterpiece of tone, competent cinematography, and despite the 30-year drought between the three previous movies in the franchise, feels largely original. This is why it has simultaneously gotten the praise it deserves and while $44 million isn't anything to laugh at, could possibly be seen as underperforming. SPOILERS from here on out.

Let's talk about its Box Office first, because as we'll learn, I think that is really an insignificant part of this film's lifecycle. Its take places it around Lucy (2014) in terms of Recent Summer Action Blockbusting, which certainly isn't great, at least when your standards are right next door - Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) clocking in at $70 million over the same weekend on a fraction of Max's $150 million budget. None of this really matters though, because Max is built to last. We'll be watching and talking about this insane odyssey for the next twenty years thanks to George Miller's simultaneous uncanny and natural ability to estimate the direction modern blockbusters are heading in and completely leaning against the tide and creating a refreshing moment of clarity ironically stacked against the cacophony of on-screen mayhem that is Fury Road.
"Nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask."

Do you like heavily plotted stories with intricate background and ample exposition? Do you like Optimus Prime's voiceover bringing you up to speed on each film? How about complex multi-film world-building obsessed with careful character debuts and a cautious expansion of logical possibilities? If you'd rather fuck all that shit, sit tight for Fury Road. It's has a visual language that is all-encompassing. The only thing I could compare it to is like a action-filled Under the Skin (2014), that is completely dependent on visual information that banks on your immediate understanding of what is going on on-screen and doesn't care if you're too slow to keep up. I have seen films that treat its audience with this level of respect before, but it's rare to see a film that the studios have put so much backing behind trust its audience to know what's going on so well. I will be calling this film "a relief" a lot, and that was a relief.

And it's not like it's very complex or obtuse. The imagery is visceral, immediate, and definitive. Why does Immortan Joe have a big scary breathing mask that makes him look like a cross between Darth Vader, Emmett Brown, that clown from American Horror Story, with the body of an overweight Predator? I don't know. It doesn't matter. What matters is that he's one bad, ugly motherfucking dude, and that image is translated immediately. The film doesn't have time to stop and explain how his breath machine works. It doesn't matter. Such an insane thing would distract from the parts of the narrative that are actually important.

That is another important aspect of this film: it is completely at ease with its own silliness. In an age where many films, from Chris Nolan and imitators to the Modern Bond movies, are focused on their own groundedness, hard science, or dark introspection and careful real-world set up of what was formerly outlandish, Fury Road revels in its complete ridiculousness. It's easy to see what a lesser director would do to the original Mad Max films. Perhaps there would be a long set-up to the practical use of shoulder-pads and mohawks and a close press-in to how Max got his trademark uhh...kneebrace (actually a keen detail from Mad Max [1979] that I was pumped to see again here, albeit completely unexplained, or even shot in a way to draw attention to it). Maybe there would be cars that would exist in the real world, a suitable extension of current trends. No. No. NO. BLIND MONSTER GUITAR PLAYER ON AN AMP TRUCK THAT SHOOTS FLAMES FROM HIS MIGHTY AXE. Let that soak in. It's called the Doofwagon, by the way, and yes, it's the perfect encapsulation of what this movie is about.

Like they say, old war parties had a fife and drum to pump up the people. So what would they have in the post-apocalyptic kill-or-be-killed world of Mad Max? Of course they would have some dude wailing on a guitar that shoots fire with huge timpani booming behind him. It's the most metal thing in the world. It works in part because even though it's extremely goofy, it fits perfect with both this world and the tone of the film, which is one of complete shamelessness.

You can guess by now that I was a fan of this film. That being said, it's not completely a revelation if you've ever seen The Road Warrior (1981) or Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). In many ways, Fury Road is just a mix of the final chase in Road Warrior combined with the slightly more insane mentality along with the literal freakshow that was Thunderdome. It has all the best manic race action that characterizes both with the addition of a few hundred million dollars to its budget. Isn't that the perfect modern blockbuster update? It holds the same spirit but pushed to its maximum without losing any of the renegade attitude that made the first trilogy essential viewing for every little boy growing up in the 80s.

Now, that original trilogy was great for little boys, but Fury Road is now a great film for little girls. I didn't really know this going in (only because I hadn't yet caught wind of the Men's Rights protests), but somehow this is a super-girlpower movie that's as much about gender wars as it is about loud fast cars clunking into eachother. The plot quite literally concerns the de-objectification of women, with a strong, independent female character, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, offering freedom for young women imprisoned into a forced breeding program with the above-mentioned gross-ass Immortan Joe (notably played here, we should mention, by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original Mad Max and is the only returning castmember). It's a weird way to treat women, because Joe ostensibly wasn't really about just pleasing himself with concubines, but really just wanted to get them all pregnant. Call him the Tracy Morgan of the Mad Max World.

In an age, though, when there are outcries every week for more positive depictions of women, or rather I should say, just ANY depiction of well-rounded, independent women with a sense of free agency, Fury Road comes out of no where, without even a loud declaration of attaining this achievement, more as a matter-of-fact boost for powerful women on film who will capably fight their male oppressors that somehow rings so much louder.

Let's get into those characters a bit more. We've talked about Joe, but the other two big roles here are Theron's Furiosa and Tom Hardy's Max. Hardy plays Max's voice like a combination of Bane and Mel Gibson, which is somehow fantastic, although his speech isn't all that common. Max has become a man of action, chiefly concerned with self-survival, although his past failures continue to very literally haunt him. He may not care to admit it, but he's seeking some sort of redemption, which is the most apparent overreaching theme to the film.

MRF meet MFP
Furiosa, who by the end of the film is more a dual protagonist than supporting role, is also seeking to redeem herself, although her initial capture from her hometown, the Green Place, is hardly her fault. It's more likely that she was forced to do some things as Imperator for Joe that she regrets and moreover just wants to do something great with her life. These are real stakes with consequences that are both personal and extra-personal, such as when when she isn't able to save all of those brides. There is pain there based on personal and interpersonal issues that are also rarely explored in Summer Blockbusters, or if they are, are sort of bungled like many of the films that tripped over or merely muddled them last year, such as Godzilla (2014), or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Fury Road is so focused. Each character is trying to achieve his or her objective, and all the action follows suit.

The last redemptive character is Nicholas Hoult's Nux, a War Boy lackey of Joe's who really just wants to impress his big boss, earn a spot in Valhalla, and win the warrior's respect of his insane peers. It's just too bad that he's sort of a doof, and immediately screws up many of his attempts to be the cunning action star he needs to be to complete Joe's mad mission. Once he is able to actually see and understand some real human contact, and not just his brainwashed cult-like contact, though, he is able to redeem himself to help these real people and honor his connection to them. He earns his entrance to Valhalla doing something noble rather than cruel.

All the character interactions stem from their initial and then shifting desires, which are all clear, apparent, and always in motion. The film finds a great way to bring the reluctant Max into the core of the action through his use as a "Blood Bag" for Nux, literally strapped to the hood of his car as he races into battle with blood pumping to refuel the poor injured War Boy. Again, so damn metal. That is the one major logical issue I have - Max loses so much damn blood in this movie. There's no way he'd be able to do all those stunts without a cookie or something.

As far as the construction of the film itself, again, many filmmakers can learn from its very practical filmmaking. Simply having a camera that remains still and steady, and that isn't afraid to collect as much information as possible is a brilliant revelation. There is a constantly clear sense of geography and character placement, in part due to the use of many simultaneous cameras that were used to capture the chase scenes, which were largely practical. All this really means that it deserves some attention for its editing, which is spectacular. This also helps the impact of the film tremendously. There is a real sense of gravity, danger, and reality to the unrealistic proceedings because of this. At the same time it can still be totally revolting and disgusting and awesome and crisp and fantastic.

Its nature, though, is still inherently episodic, similar to all previous Max films, which begs for another sequel that can pick-up with the Road Warrior on his next adventure. This allows the franchise to easily bounce between realms in this world, and even though a lot of that aesthetic is intact, Miller greatly flexes his creativity here with the different cultures, especially after Lord Humongus, Master Blaster, and Tina Turner all made their turns as nefarious villains. It would be easy to just completely repeat the past, but instead Miller is able to flesh out no less than five freaky cultures, from the Citadel, to Gas Town, Bullet Farm, the Green Place, and those weird Tusken Raider-looking assholes in the canyon. And the Porcupine-Car-driving people! There are like six unique cultures that all look new and distinctive! This isn't even the kind of thing I should be excited about, but it's just so rare these days. Everything usually looks the same, even across franchises. Why did Battleship (2012) look just like the Transformers (dumb question)? Why did Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) look just like Alice in Wonderland (2010)? What terrible standards we have now, but it seemed like everything had to look alike, like we had reached the end of our creative mindscape. Nope.

So I'm giving this a thumbs-up. It's nuts, bold, and refreshing, while providing great drama, character work, focus, and clarity. It's mind-erasing. Go see it, so this thing makes enough money to push Hollywood into more this direction. Seriously!

What did you think?

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